Inside El Jardin: Soulful Mexican

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San Diego arguably has the best Mexican food in the United States. But, because of our location, only Baja regional cuisine really gets to shine in our city. Not anymore. Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins and Rise & Shine Restaurant Group showcase the best dishes from all the different regions and cultures of Mexico at El Jardín in Liberty Station. Zepeda looks at the culinary traditions, both indigenous and immigrant, traditional and modern, to explore a true sense of the country. Then, with an almost fanatical dedication to quality, she uses the best possible ingredients to tell the stories of these regions, their history, and their present.

El Jardin Photo Credit: ANTONIO DIAZ DE SANDI

Tlacoyos, for example, is a dish that dates back to the Aztecs and is now a popular street snack in Mexico City. Zepeda’s Fava Tlacoyo is filled with fava beans that have been caramelized with onions and avocado leaves. They are paired with a bright green garlic sauce and a soft cheese fondue, a comforting combination packed with flavor and warmth.

Or the house guacamole, which draws on the history of the snack that dates back to the 15th & 16th century. The word “guacamole” is actually derived from the Nahuatl word Āhuacamolli, which means avocado sauce. The original pre-Hispanic dish only featured smashed avocado, which is a part of the reason that El Jardín doesn’t mix the vegetables completely in.

Courtesy Photo

My favorite dish during the tasting was a special, the Persimmon Tiradito.  The fresh dish features Ahi tuna that has been marinated in white ponzu and paired with fresh Fuyu persimmons, red onions, cilantro and serrano peppers from their garden. While some more traditional chefs avoid Asian influences like soy sauce or ponzu in their kitchen, Zepeda appreciates the influence that Asian immigrants have had on Mexican cuisine.

El Jardín feels like a very personal passion project for Zepeda. On the day of our tasting, she had a rare taco on the specials menu, inspired by her favorite Tijuana taco shop, Tacos Fitos, where she often stops for lunch after going to the Mercado Hidalgo. She explains that normally she steers clear of tacos on her menu because San Diegans tend to be touchy on the price point. But since she missed lunch at Tacos Fitos, she recreated a version of her favorite lunch for the dinner specials menu. Zepeda made the Birria Taco her own by serving the taco hovering over a pool of the consommé, to dip the crispy taco into.

El Jardin Photo Credit: Heartwork Hill

A new addition to the dessert menu is the churros, another very personal item for her. She shares her inspiration for the dish. “I grew up crossing the border and my other border-straddling friends and family can all agree that the only redeeming quality of the wait at the border is the sweet crunch of a churro while you are waiting in line to cross from Tijuana and San Diego. We’ve spent some serious time perfecting that texture, replicating that experience and making sure that the crunch lasts from the first bite to the last.”

These kinds of food memories have inspired a delicious tradition at El Jardín, the Food Memorias chef dinners. The next one, on January 23rd, will feature none other than her old boss, Javier Plascencia, who she worked for at the now shuttered Bracero. Journey down memory lane with the two chefs, enjoying 8-courses with the last two dishes coming from current Sous chefs and former “Bracero’s” Chef Leo and Chef Paola.

Michelle Stansbury is a freelance food, travel, and lifestyle writer. Feel free to reach out to her at [email protected] with story ideas!

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